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Afghanistan opium production cut nearly in half by fungus

U.N. says output plunged from 2009 levels. Despite the blight, insurgents probably didn't lose any profits because the scarcity drove up prices dramatically.

October 01, 2010|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan — Opium production in Afghanistan this year plunged by nearly half from 2009 levels, the United Nations said in a report Thursday. But the steep drop was attributed to a fungus that wreaked havoc on the poppy crop, not to Western anti-narcotics efforts.

The scarcity dramatically drove up prices so much that officials fear poppy cultivation will prove an irresistible option in the coming year for farmers whom authorities are trying to entice to grow legal crops. And despite the blight, the premium prices probably put about as much drug money into the insurgency's coffers as previously.

In its annual survey, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said this year's opium output was the lowest since 2003, but even so, Afghanistan continues to dominate the world supply. Moreover, homegrown drug use is increasing. In rural areas here, opium is commonly used as a painkiller, even for small children, and the ranks of urban addicts grow daily.

Poppy growth is concentrated in southern Afghanistan, the insurgency's main stronghold. Fighting makes it more difficult to contain drug production, though a government incentive program was credited with a slight drop in poppy cultivation in Helmand province, where intense clashes have taken place this year between Western troops and the Taliban.

Although the summer "fighting season" is drawing to a close, violence continued to shake the south.

A suicide car bomber Thursday struck a NATO convoy outside Kandahar, killing at least three civilians and injuring nine. The powerful explosion carved a large crater in the road leading to the civilian airport and the south's main Western air base.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force also reported the deaths of two service members in the south, without providing details. A major military push by Afghan and Western forces is underway in and around Kandahar, but military officials declined to say whether the latest deaths were associated with that fighting.

In the capital, Kabul, meanwhile, officials reported more suspected fraud in Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. In the wake of last year's tainted presidential vote, the parliamentary balloting was meant to showcase the country's ability to hold a reasonably fair election.

Votes have been counted in nearly two-thirds of the country's 34 provinces, but with thousands of complaints pending, a final tally is not expected until the end of October.

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